Great headlines, or “the greatest” headlines?

I’ve been running silent these past few weeks, getting ready for the ICHEP conference next week. However, a pair of headlines today was just too much to ignore. When I scanned the AP stories listed on Yahoo News, these caught my eye:

  • Obama urges Germans to work with US to stop terror AP – 42 minutes ago
  • McCain visits German restaurant in Ohio AP – 1 hour, 6 minutes ago

Hmmm. Seems like McCain could be trying a little harder.

Faith-based dodge

Today, the Supreme Court ruled on a number of cases that have piled up as its current term comes to an end. One of the issues the court ruled on today was whether funding President Bush’s “faith-based programs initiative” is a constitutional use of taxpayer money. The court didn’t rule on the case, but instead ruled that taxpayers have no standing in the court to bring such a case. From a technical perspective, this is a useful ruling. If every taxpayer or taxpayer organization had standing, we could tie up the court with questions about every law on the books.

The larger question – whether organizations with religious affiliations should have a special program that gives them money to do their work – is left open. Let’s investigate this question by looking, if possible, at the rules of the program. We begin with the website for the President’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI) [1]. The President’s vision of the program is summarized as follows: “Yet, all too often, the Federal government has put in place complicated
rules and regulations preventing FBCOs from competing for funds on an
equal footing with other organizations. President Bush believes that
besides being inherently unfair, such an approach can waste tax-payer
dollars and cut off the poor from successful programs” [2].  There are several principles on which the office is founded, but one of interest is the following: “The underlying premise of the President’s Initiative is that a more
open and competitive Federal grant-making process will increase the
delivery of effective social services to those whose needs are
greatest.”

What does the U.S. Constitution have to say about religion? A lot of people throw around the idea of “separation”; however, this word doesn’t appear explicitly in the Constitution. Instead, we must look to the language in Article 6 (Debts, Supremacy, Oaths).

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Of course, there is the most famous language in the first amendment – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances.

This is where things get gray. Is the OFBCI an instance of “establishment”, or it is, as the President states, a case of removing prohibition by “leveling the playing field”? This is, perhaps, the question that the Court could have addressed had the taxpayers had standing.

From my perspective, having such an office in the President’s own house, so close to the Executive, does smack of establishment. I don’t have a problem with religious organizations offering aid, even if I have noted in my own experience with such organizations that there are spiritual strings attached to that aid. If the President thought the playing field wasn’t level, why not just have an Office of Community Initiatives, dropping “Faith” from the name? If the idea is to just level the playing field, why not make it fair (at least, in name) for all kinds of organizations to do community work, holding all organizations to the same standards and offering no religious test of any kind which determines funding?

One question I had was, “Is a religious test required to apply for funding from OFBCI?” I learned a few things. First, the White House has an OFBCI, but so does Health and Human Services. As of March 2006, the Department of Homeland Security ALSO has an OFBCI. Why three are needed to “level the playing field” is really beyond me. This looks more like a pattern of infection than an concerted centralized effort to level a playing field.

It turns out be be quite hard to answer my question. I can find lots of short paragraphs guiding those unfamiliar with grant programs generally about how to proceed. To find the criteria applied to determine grant award winners, you have to read each grant’s rules. I tried going to some of the grant websites to get info. For instance, I tried to go to the Community Block Grants for HHS, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/csbg/, but it was unavailable. That was the first one I tried. I then tried a State Abstinence Education Program website, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fbci/progs/fbci_saep.html.  It was also unavailable. I then tried the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program website,
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/
.  This page also didn’t exist or wasn’t available. I then tried a Child Care and Development fund page,
http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ccb/geninfo/ccdfdesc.htm
.  UNAVAILABLE.

At that point, I gave up trying. It seems that an honest citizen trying to learn the rules for getting a grant, as recommended by a given OFBCI, is blocked by a complete lack of actual information about the program. This gives me no faith in the Constitutionality of the faith-based programs. I want to give them a fair shake, but it seems like failing to supply information about the rules in a reliable way is a first small step for mis- for dis-information. Is OFBCI leveling the playing field, or creating a special opportunity for those only with ties to religious organizations to get federal money to do work? Is the grant application process a religious test, or not? Will the Supreme Court ever be given a chance to rule on this issue by a party with standing? I have faith, at least, that some of these might be answered.

[1] http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/
[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/president-initiative.html

Less Math, More Civics

Tonight on “Humankind”, David Freudberg inteviewed Helen Thomas, the feisty and sharp White House reporter. At one point, expressing her frustration with the state of willingness of the American People, said that she wished that less math was being taught in school, in favor of more civics and history. This was a frightening statement. Math is a discipline, that (like science) teaches you to think critically about problem solving. That skill is as good for political problems as it is for numerical problems. I know she meant well by the comment, but in my opinion we need to engage kids in more math and science, as well as history and civics. I don’t see why there has to be less reason-based learned in favor of history-based learning. We should approach both subjects with the same engagement, and teach kids that the boundaries between classes are not the same as the boundaries between subjects.

Finding consensus

For the past five months, my professional life has been a roller-coaster ride. My research is now a constant source of stress, as deadlines rapidly approach and MANY questions need to be answered. Adding to this is a broader concern about the future of my own field in this country. High-energy physics, a field which the U.S. helped build to its modern state after World War II, has helped to put us in a position of world leadership in technology, education, and basic research. HEP inspires young men and women with its big questions about the origin and nature of space, time, energy, and matter. It tantalizes the growing mind with hints and clues to those questions: Maxwell’s equations, relativity, the Standard Model. Even those who don’t remain in the field take their skills in problem solving, electronics, engineering, and computing to other fields and into industry.

But the pipeline is threatened, and not just in this field. In almost all fields of the physical sciences, the U.S. is either at a cross-roads or in decline. This is not because there is a lack of compelling problems to solve. Quite the contrary. In particle physics, this is “a time rivaled ONLY by the excitement at the turn of the 20th century”:http://interactions.org/quantumuniverse/. The challenges of dark matter and dark energy, the mystery of the matter/antimatter asymmetry, the curiosity of unification and the wild multiplicity of fundamental building blocks all present us with an opportunity to pursue aggressive programs in astrophysics, collider physics, neutrino physics . . . the list goes on and on.

Within particle physics, it’s pretty clear that the “Large Hadron Collider”:http://www.interactions.org/LHC/ at CERN is the highest priority program in the next decade. It has been a challenge to this field to conceive it, build it, and soon, run it. Thousands of particle physicists from all over the globe are converging on CERN, more with each passing month, as the ATLAS and CMS collaborations get ready to catch the collisions of the great LHC physics engine.

What is less clear is what happens to us all after the LHC. It may seem odd to worry about what to do after an experiment which (a) hasn’t started running yet and (b) is expected to last close to 20 years. However, particle physics is a field in which long-term vision and a commitment to the questions are critical to forging a path into the unknown. Even for experiments that are comparatively small when juxtaposed with the LHC, we plan and worry and test and build years in advance of running the actual experiment.

The thing that weighs most on me now is that the field *feels* like it’s beginning to fracture. In the “wake of the EPP2010 report”:http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bpa/EPP2010.html, I have had many conversations with my colleagues about our field and the three-letter acronym that is becoming a four-letter word with some physicists: ILC, the International Linear Collider. I’ve even had a fight with Jodi about this thing. The argument always centers around two issue, the very issues the EPP2010 committee worried about: will the ILC gobble up the budgets of all other programs (the “all the eggs in one basket” argument), and how do we trains students and post-docs on an experiment that is perhaps a decade away (the “students and post-docs can’t get jobs if they don’t work on a running experiment” argument)?

I am not trivializing these arguments. They are **absolutely critical questions** that all of us must answer. Tackling them will take professional courage and a lot of ingenuity, and that is what I want all of my colleagues to understand. As a post-doc, I deeply understand the problem of advancing a career while also keeping a focus on the future. However, I also understand that if we never try, we will never achieve. As a person who has been recently involved in neutrino physics, I understand the fear that a big ILC budget will eat the little budgets of other projects. However, if we stand up and state what is important to us, with the understanding that the ILC represents a nexus for advancing our field on many fronts (science, technology, and engineering), we can have our small science while making investments and commitments to a large, central project.

It doesn’t have to be about giving up the science we love for the science we’re told to do. Many of us have felt for a decade that the ILC is critical in understanding the mysteries that could be revealed by the LHC. I am beginning to understand the importance of the ILC as a discovery engine, complementary to the LHC but also independently powerful in its breadth. Now is the time to work with the whole field, and other fields of science, and the American people, and talk to them about the science we do and the science we will do, if we have the tools. Now is the time to understand the reasons for the ILC, to understand how a central project can benefit the smaller programs, and to offer the public and our fellow scientists a chance to share in the wonder of particle physics. Most importantly, now is the time to stand up to our funding agencies and declare the importance of the physics experiments we have planned, how they fit into a schedule of priorities, and how we can pursue them. If we do not do this last thing, then the funding agents will make autocratic decisions about the future of this field.

The DOE, for instance, has not had a new initiative in the last 3-5 years. Many projects have been cancelled either by committee or by unilateral action. These agencies are supposed to serve the science, not the other way around. Before we can chart a road built on clear scientific consensus, we have to also work to engage the funding agencies and show them that there is science we cannot afford not to fund.